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The Shipyard at 150

On its sesquicentennial, Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, one of the oldest businesses on the Island, stands at the heart of a working Vineyard Haven harbor.

It is the second to last day of October 1860. A sailing ship rests on a pair of iron rails driven into the sands of a beach. Just to the right of the vessel, as you face the harbor, lies a wharf. To the right of the wharf stands a building two stories high. This is the office of the shipyard, and also its warehouse and shop. Officially, the Holmes Hole Marine Railway has been in business for four years. But as yet no road runs out to the yard from the town, known today as Vineyard Haven.

Those who want to see the launching of this brig must ride a third of a mile over sand from the village to the west, which was then called Holmes Hole. If the witnesses were to keep riding past the shipyard, they will come to a point where the long sand spit ends at the entrance into the Lagoon. Just across the channel lies a lively little village of taverns called Eastville. But with no road to the shipyard and beyond, there is no reason for a bridge over the channel. Residents of Holmes Hole can reach Eastville by crossing the harbor in a boat. And Eastville is the last stop. Beyond it, the future Oak Bluffs is still wilderness.

It is an uncertain time across the country and on the Vineyard. In exactly one week, Abraham Lincoln will be elected president of the United States. This could lead to the breakup of the nation. On the Island, the greatest days of whaling are fifteen years in the past. But on this mid-autumn day, the builders John Cannon and Ephraim Nye, and the visitors from Holmes Hole who have watched the vessel come together on the distant beach, try to put these worries out of their minds.

Inside a circular shed, at the head of the railway, the crowd hears a whip crack. A team of oxen lumbers forward, turning a great windlass. The brig – her bottom coppered to keep down marine growth, but her spars not yet standing and perhaps not even built – begins to inch her way down the rails to the edge of Holmes Hole harbor. It is a Tuesday, so a runner sets off by way of the scrubby inland highway for the newspaper office in Edgartown, seven miles away. The new ship is 109 feet long and measures 280 tons. “She will be called, very appropriately, the Island Queen,” reports the Vineyard Gazette at the end of the week, “being at once the largest and best vessel ever built at the Vineyard.”

The Island Queen is not yet rigged, but she already has a captain from Tisbury and a cargo scheduled for her maiden voyage. With secession coming and whaling going, shipbuilding may be the only industry the Vineyard can count on to generate meaningful revenue in the worrisome times to come. But even here there is a problem. On the Island, all the stout, shipbuilding timber is long gone, the trees harvested to build homes and barns and at least a dozen large sailing vessels before this one. Importing timber from Maine, where it still grows straight and tall and wide, will cut into profits. How on earth will the Holmes Hole Marine Railway manage to stay in the shipbuilding business? With the effort it took to build so great a vessel – sawing her ribs and bending and fastening her planking with so few tools on so open a beach – what can possibly follow the Island Queen?

Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard stands exactly on the place where the Island Queen crept down to Holmes Hole harbor on October 30, 1860. Counting from the date of incorporation in 1856, the shipyard turns 150 years old this summer. Only one change of name – to the Martha’s Vineyard Shipbuilding Company – stands between the Holmes Hole Marine Railway, for which Cannon and Nye built the Island Queen, and the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard of today. If you go back to the very first years of its operation – somewhere between 1840 and 1842 – the shipyard is the third-oldest uninterrupted business on the Vineyard, after the establishment of an inn at what is now the Kelley House in Edgartown (1742) and the Mansion House at the entrance to Main Street, Vineyard Haven (1794).

It’s not easy to trace the history of the shipyard. The story is told in fragments, mostly in newspaper clippings. These bulletins take for granted the labors of launching and repairing ships and say almost nothing about how the work was done. James H.K. Norton – college professor, farmer, and tenth-generation Islander – has written the most about how the yard began. In 2000 he wrote a guidebook, Walking in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, published by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society in Edgartown. He discovered that an unlikely partnership of Holmes Hole titans, Captain Thomas Bradley and Dr. Leroy M. Yale, established the yard on the beach no later than 1842.

Thomas Bradley was a captain at twenty-five, an entrepreneur of unerring vision after his retirement from the sea, and a holder of every town office imaginable in his lifetime. Dr. Yale was a physician who came to serve the town in 1829 from his studies at – yes – Harvard. At first, the partners called the new shipbuilding enterprise the South Wharf Company because two other commercial piers – the present-day Steamship Authority wharf was one of them – already stood in town to the north and west.

We know the facts of Captain Bradley’s life, but we’ve got the details of Dr. Yale’s. He served the village for twenty years, trusted by his patients from the first days of his practice. Yet he was often dismayed by the efficacy of his treatments, wrote Dr. Russell Hoxsie of Chilmark in a review of Dr. Yale’s medical journal in the November 2001 edition of The Dukes County Intelligencer, the quarterly journal of the historical society. A biography of Dr. Yale by his son Leroy Jr., reprinted in the May 2001 edition of The Intelligencer, describes how in February 1849 the doctor tried to treat the sickness aboard a ship that sailed into the harbor laden with Irish immigrants suffering from ship’s fever (typhus): “He did what he could to comfort the wretched creatures and the ship proceeded,” wrote the son. “But she had done her work with him. I remember his tale of the horrible squalor of the ‘tween decks, crowded with young and old in all the terrors of typhus,” and of how “through the hatchway, left open for air, the sleet beat in upon the sufferers.” Within days of the departure of the ship, Dr. Yale himself fell ill from the disease.

Such a man must have considered his partnership in a shipyard – a business so disconnected from medicine – to be an investment in the fortunes of the townspeople for whom he cared so much. Dr. Yale and Captain Bradley could not know what good they were doing the town, or how many generations that good would outlive them. With the creation of this shipyard, Vineyard Haven established itself as a harbor that did more than offer refuge and provisions to transient vessels or a wharf to passenger steamers. It would become a harbor that actually produced things – a working harbor, as its devotees call it today. It took imagination and energy to build and launch a dozen schooners and brigs on a beach that had no railway before the spring of 1855 – and may have had no real road to the yard itself until the bridge over the Lagoon was built in 1871.

Dr. Yale could not know any of what was to come, but the first thing the people of Holmes Hole did after his death in March 1849 – from the typhus he contracted aboard the immigrant ship – was to petition Captain Bradley to name a new schooner, under construction at the shipyard, the L.M. Yale. The Yale seems to have been commissioned as a freight-carrying vessel. But in 1849 gold fever was running through the land, and Vineyarders were not immune. The Yale was promptly chartered to carry twenty-one Island prospectors to San Francisco, a fair portion of whom died of illnesses picked up at the diggings. Otis Smith of Chilmark, the Yale’s captain, was among them. The Yale never again returned to the Vineyard.

In an office on the second floor of the shipyard, there’s a photograph of a man with an extravagant beard laying the keel of a Noman’s Land boat – a type of Vineyard fishing dory – at the yard sometime in the 1880s. We know the man’s name was Charles Gifford and that he owned shares in the boatyard. And we know that this boat was the last to be built at the yard until the early 1930s. The Island had no wood to build anything bigger. And in the hard years following the Civil War, there was too little money on the Vineyard to import stout timbers from Maine or anywhere else. Another Island industry – the building of substantial ships for a seafaring people – appeared to be on the way out.

Over in Edgartown, Erford W. Burt was a frustrated man. Born to a large family in North Tisbury in 1902, forced out of high school by illness after a week, Burt was serving his second year as an adult apprentice to Manuel Swartz Roberts, the catboat builder who worked out of what is now the Old Sculpin Gallery. It was 1928. The age of sail was done. Marine engines were advancing like nobody’s business. But the commercial fishermen of Edgartown didn’t need speed. They needed a full and stable hull to hold fish. So they kept asking Manuel Roberts to build the same type of catboat over and over again. And Roberts, perhaps fearing that Burt might become a rival, refused to teach him anything about design – specifically, how to build full-sized boats from the half models he carved in his shop. Burt would sneak back to the workplace during his lunch hour to parse out how the old master was doing it.

By the end of 1929, Burt, twenty-seven years old, knew enough about design and boatbuilding to leave Roberts. He went to work for William A. Colby, who owned what was now called the Martha’s Vineyard Shipbuilding Company. (Its name changed after Holmes Hole changed its own name to Vineyard Haven in 1871.) In 1932 – despite the threat the Depression posed to a resort economy – Colby allowed Burt to build a boat on spec. Out of the shed came a twenty-eight-and-a-half-foot sport-fishing boat with a 130-horsepower inboard and a shape never before built on Martha’s Vineyard. She was the first boat to be built at the yard since Charles Gifford finished up his Noman’s Land boat fifty years before.

Where a catboat was capacious throughout her hull, this boat parted the water sharply at her bow and flattened it at the stern. “I could see that this was a golden opportunity to fit a boat to the motor,” said Burt in a 1990 interview. “I was the first to build a Vineyard boat expressly for modern engines, at the end of the time when people were building and buying catboats.” In 1974 he told John M. Leavens that the vessel, named Knot Over (because she would get to where she was going in the predicted time and “not over”), made a weeklong run down to Florida. On the first day, she left the Vineyard at 7 a.m. and reached Shark River Inlet on the Jersey coast at 10:30 p.m. – “a run of about 400 miles in about fifteen and a half hours,” said Burt. “That’s really moving!”

In 1933, for the shipyard, Burt would design the Vineyard Haven 15, a dandy racing sloop that snapped through a tack, sailed downwind with barely a finger on the tiller, and served for four decades as the main racing fleet of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club. But it was the advent of World War II that gave the shipyard the chance to show the world what it could do. In July 1942 the War Department was desperate to find small yards that could build barges, as well as fast and dependable auxiliary craft to carry munitions and personnel between larger ships. By the end of the year, the whole length of the Vineyard Haven harbor, from the yard to what is now the DeSorcy Contracting Company near Five Corners, was a shipbuilding facility.

Ralph M. Packer Jr., who runs the eponymous oil-delivery and transportation company just east of the shipyard, remembers seeing huge band saws on the beach as scores of men and women framed and planked the barges. The existence of these scows was supposed to be a secret, though each was 250 feet long and the whole train of them stood high over Beach Road, as the Island Queen must have stood eighty years before. The builders came from the shipyard and William E. Dugan’s contracting company nearby. The Gazette noted that “the boatbuilders had not used mill machinery, neither had the carpenters built boats, and clever organizing was necessary in order to fit the two organizations together in a manner that would operate smoothly.”

Eight times in two years the government turned to the shipyard to build war craft. The operation turned out seventy speedboats and sixteen barges. At the first launch, the Gazette said, “The shades of John Cannon, Ephraim Nye, and the other old shipbuilders of Holmes Hole must have prowled the waterfront on Friday, for on that day, the first ship launching in many a generation took place in that Island harbor. . . . [I]n plan, construction, and procedure in launching, all things were done in accordance with the old-time rules of shipbuilding. . . . It was a prideful day for the Vineyard when a gold-braided naval officer, his hair grown gray in the service, stood on a platform at the shipyard and told a thousand people that the Vineyard yard had turned out the finest boats obtainable for the tough job that they had to do.”

In 1961 Thomas Hale came to the Vineyard an ambitious man. From Robert M. Love, who had served simultaneously as the Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority board of governors as well as chairman of the board of Allegheny Airlines, Hale and his wife Anne bought Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard – Love changed the name in 1953 – for roughly $38,000. After the war, the shipyard had again retreated to the world of boat storage and maintenance. There were only four or five year-round employees. Business was so slow that Bob Love suggested to Tom Hale that he consider shutting down the yard for the winter. Nothing doing, thought Hale. Raised in Newburyport and Dedham, he’d learned to sail in Padanaram (South Dartmouth, near New Bedford) and first visited the Vineyard in 1948. He’d earned his master’s degree in architecture at Harvard, but found he was spending his idle moments and hours drawing boats. He wanted to design them, and he wanted to build them.

Those ambitions were enormous. “See, I was thinking – unconsciously perhaps – about Concordia,” says Hale, eighty-one, of the yard that built world-class yawls in Fairhaven in the middle of the last century. For all the shipbuilding heritage of the yard he’d just purchased, it was like taking over a well-respected auto-body shop in Nova Scotia and wanting to build Lincoln Continentals. Yet for the next twenty years, the vision served the shipyard well. It built wooden Noank sloops, revived the Vineyard Haven 15 class by building new boats out of fiberglass, adapted a handsome down-east lobsterman’s boat as the Wasque picnic boat, and created a new class of nifty double-ended sloops called the Vineyard Vixen. The yard was moving toward the moment when, like Concordia, it might become a brand-name facility – the Wasque yard or the Vineyard Vixen yard. “But we just couldn’t do it economically,” says Tom Hale. “You could buy a similar boat almost as nicely finished in Taiwan, and that boat could be deck-shipped to San Francisco, loaded on a truck, taken to Newport, and rigged, and launched, and delivered – customs duties and the broker’s fees paid – to the owner for less than we could build and deliver the same boat in Vineyard Haven harbor.”

In 1986, Philip Hale bought the shipyard from his father, paying nearly $900,000 for it over the next ten years. From boyhood, Phil, fifty-two, had worked almost every job there was at the yard, from sweeping out the sheds to running the boatbuilding program. The first thing he did as president of the yard was to look at that program pragmatically and shut it down. For the first time in its history, the shipyard was out of the boatbuilding business with no plans to go back.

The new goal was to serve Vineyarders and visitors whose boats were growing ever more elaborate – mechanically, electrically, and by way of fit and finish – and do it as efficiently as possible. “We’ve got twenty people working year-round, we’ve got huge skills, we can fix a fiberglass boat, and we handle 400 boats a year,” says Phil Hale. (Full disclosure: my Herreshoff 121/2 sloop is one of them.) “We service from Cape Pogue to Quitsa Pond. And I think that’s the fascinating piece – being able to do that efficiently. We’ve learned how to move boats over the water and over the land seamlessly. And that’s the fun thing: When a boat comes out of the woods in West Tisbury, arrives here painted, commissioned, launched, her sails on, and is towed to Edgartown in the same day – that’s pretty cool stuff.”

Shades of John Cannon and Ephraim Nye – but a long way from running a 280-ton brig down a pair of iron rails set into the shifting sands of a beach.

To understand how unique the character of Vineyard Haven harbor is – and how vital the legacy of this ancient shipbuilding yard is to that character – you need look no farther than any other harbor on the eastern seaboard.

In Newport, all three shipyards are gone, the old working waterfront yielding to restaurants, six-story motels, and a highway that mowed down half the harborfront and walled off much of the rest of it from public use. Hyannis and Nantucket are both given over to boutiques that shutter up, and marinas that empty out, when the first cold winds gust in from the water. For all the merriment of Oak Bluffs harbor, and the stateliness of Edgartown’s, there is almost no hint of the year ’round commerce you find on Vineyard Haven harbor, where 230-foot ferries and gravel barges share the water with eight-foot racing prams in summer, and all year-round the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway builds sloops and schooners the old-fashioned way, silver-bali planks fastened to white-oak frames. James Lobdell of the harbor management committee points out that Vineyard Haven is one of the few harbors where a regular guy may sail in, pick up an inexpensive mooring, row his dinghy to a public beach, and find himself within a few steps of a supermarket, pharmacy, or post office. Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard is the oldest of these harborfront enterprises, and its sesquicentennial is a useful moment to inquire about its fate and that of the harbor its history has so profoundly shaped.

“We’re employing people,” says Phil Hale. “I mean, I don’t know what Ralph Packer’s employment and the Black Dog’s and Gannon and Benjamin’s comes to, but it’s got to be 100 people. That’s a huge workforce. And what other businesses could you put there that are going to keep 100 jobs year-round, and all the wages we pay out? I think that the waterfront businesses are a huge economic engine that is not recognized by the town.”

Tom Pachico, town selectman, says he recognizes it and the town recognizes it.

“We pride ourselves on having a working harbor. It is a variety of businesses,” he says. “I found early on there is a great potential for much bigger income from the harbor” – by raising seasonal and short-term mooring fees, for example – “but the townspeople don’t want to do it that way. They want to keep the working, homey atmosphere to it. They liken it to a park. And it is.”

A few years ago, the town adopted a set of rules requiring that any new business on the harborfront be marine-related. It then voted unanimously to designate the harbor a District of Critical Planning Concern, by which developments of a certain size are automatically referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, a land-use and planning agency. Pachico says his only complaint is that some of the waterfront rules overlap and contradict each other. He points to an old contracting company on the harbor that can’t build a pier because the business is not, strictly speaking, marine-related. He’d like for the town planning board and selectmen to have the final say about how a working harbor can make a profit and keep its character – not the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. “There are people that don’t want you to do anything on your property. I want you to be able to make money on your property,” says Pachico, “but I don’t want you to rape the harbor while you’re at it. Or the town. Where’s that balance?”

Phil Hale can’t answer Tom Pachico’s question over the long term. No one with a love for working Vineyard Haven harbor can. But on the 150th anniversary, Hale says he’s in the boatyard business for the long haul.

The taxes are high, finding and keeping skilled, boat-oriented help on the Island is growing more difficult by the year, and woe betide the boatyard president looking up from his desk at an owner whose sloop or inboard was supposed to go into the water at ten o’clock this morning, and that boat is still in her cradle at eleven. Yet he looks at a newspaper clipping and agrees with something his father wrote in the Gazette some years ago:

“To me, perhaps, the greatest satisfaction is to stand at the end of our pier and see a fleet of boats which we have built and stored and cared for over the past year, just finishing a race. Their owners think they own them. They’re wrong, they just pay the bills, but I feel, almost jealously, that they are my boats, and that the owners may use them during two or three months out of the year, provided they bring them back safe and sound in the fall. There are only two straight lines on a boat, the mast and the waterline, and the rest is a symphony of complementary curves reflecting and responding to the boat’s two natural elements – the wind and the water. To me, it is a privilege and a pleasure to be able to build and care for such an object.”

(Originally published in the July 2006 edition of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine)